Viewers learn about the health effects of natural gas and oil drilling on Garfield County, Colorado, residents in this video segment adapted from the independent film Split Estate. In the 1990s, people there started to complain that toxic compounds released by nearby drilling were making them sick by affecting their water supply. Resident Laura Amis, whose drinking water was poisoned by drilling, developed an adrenal tumor. Experts explain how oil and gas industries are exempt from some federal regulations. Many wells have been drilled since the 1990s, and more continue to be planned.
Natural gas is relatively easy to produce: once a well is drilled and finished, the gas usually comes out on its own. However, as companies have pushed the limits of technology by drilling less conventional wells, they are turning more often to a technique called fracturing to make gas wells more productive. Fracturing involves injecting acid, chemical gels, or other fluids underground at high pressure to open up cracks in the rock and allow the natural gas to flow more easily. About 90 percent of oil and gas wells in the United States use fracturing to stimulate production. However, some of the fluids used are toxic and can contaminate nearby groundwater supplies. That's where the controversy comes in.
In a number of states, including Colorado, New Mexico, and Virginia, residents' water quality worsened after gas wells near their homes were fractured. Residents complained about murky or cloudy water, black, jelly-like grease in the water, and body rashes from showering. But there could also be more serious consequences: chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluids have been linked to cancer, organ and skin disorders, birth defects, and other health problems.
Despite the risks, the EPA does not currently regulate the injection of fracturing fluids under the Safe Drinking Water Act. A 2004 EPA study found that fracturing coal seams to increase production poses little or no threat to drinking water, but this finding remains controversial. In recent years, citizen action groups such as Earthworks in Colorado have pressured the government to better protect people living near drill sites, especially those who do not own the rights to mineral deposits under their properties. Citizen groups are also pushing gas companies to use safer drilling and fracturing techniques.
There are ways to fracture wells without using toxic chemicals. For instance, a well can be fractured with plain water, and studies show that this works just as well as—and costs considerably less than—fracturing with a chemical gel. Another option is using a mixture of liquid carbon dioxide and sand. After injecting the mixture into the fractures, the CO2 vaporizes, leaving sand to hold the cracks open. This type of fracturing protects groundwater by generating no underground waste.
It's not only the oil and gas companies, citizens directly affected by drilling, or government regulators who can take action. About 86 percent of all energy used in the United States comes from fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas. These substances are also the raw materials for most of the huge quantity of plastics our society uses. By reducing our demand for fossil fuels, we can lessen the need for oil and gas drilling. For instance, whenever possible, we can walk, bike, or use mass transit instead of driving. We can use energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs at home, and shut lights off when we leave a room. We can also reduce the amount of waste we produce by buying minimally packaged goods, choosing reusable products, and recycling. Finally, we can all be citizen activists: if we see an environmental problem in our neighborhood, we can join forces with neighbors and local government to fix it for everyone's health and safety.
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